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It's tempting, in our cell phone-drenched society, to pine for simpler days—a time when Twitter was what you heard in the trees, Blackberrys were what you picked from the bushes and blogs were the noises your stomach made when it was hungry.
Best buds Zed and Oh, though, are fed up with those simpler days. Zed's an inept hunter. Oh's an underappreciated gatherer. And when those are the only two jobs available in a hunter-gatherer society, it leads to workplace angst.
But Zed wants bigger, better things for himself. On a whim, he picks a glowing apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and takes a bite.
"It has sort of a knowledgey taste," he informs Oh.
Alas, eating the forbidden fruit is, well, forbidden, and his tribe kicks poor Zed out of the village. Oh tags along—primarily because Zed accidentally burns down Oh's hut, freeing him from both the responsibilities of home ownership and his daunting prehistoric mortgage. Why not take a little vacation? To, say, Sodom?
And so begins history's first would-be road trip adventure (if there were any roads) or its first buddy comedy (if there were any laughs). As it is, so begins 97 minutes of blasphemous stone age inanity that left me looking for stray rocks upon which to bang my head.
Despite some bumpy moments, Oh and Zed develop a genuine affection for one another. They rescue old friends from slavery along the way. And the film says human sacrifice is bad.
Zed and Oh meander through a bizarre, pseudo-biblical narrative that spoofs scenes from Genesis while lampooning those characters' religious beliefs. We'll talk more about the implications of that in the conclusion, but let's go over some specific examples here:
The Garden of Eden: After Zed eats some forbidden fruit, a snake shows up and nearly constricts Oh. Throughout the film, Zed brags about his new knowledge when it's pretty clear he hasn't been enlightened much at all.
Cain and Abel: Zed and Oh watch Cain repeatedly clock Abel in the head with a rock, eventually killing him. After the murder, Cain "encourages" the travelers to have dinner with his family, where we meet Adam, Seth and a daughter named Lilith (a character who originates from Mesopotamian sources and, in medieval Jewish mysticism, was said to be Adam's first wife). Adam instructs Zed to lay with Lilith, to obey God's command to "be fruitful and multiply." But Lilith isn't interested because, she says, "I like girls."
When Cain's evil deed is discovered, He escapes Adam's grasp by ox cart and taunts, "Who's in God's favor now?!" A lightning bolt immediately strikes Cain in the forehead, scarring him. Cain then sells Zed and Oh into slavery and, later, meets up with them again as a guard in the city of Sodom.
Abraham and Isaac: Zed and Oh stumble upon Abraham just as he's about to sacrifice Isaac. Zed and Oh convince the father not to kill his son. Abraham invites the pair back to his tent and, later, encourages them to be circumcised. After Zed and Oh leave Abraham's outpost, they hear a bloodcurdling scream—apparently from Isaac as he's being circumcised.
Sodom: Despite Abraham's warnings that God is about to smite Sodom for its sinfulness, Zed and Oh travel there (accompanied by Isaac, who says he sneaks off to the city now and then to party on weekends). Sodom's citizens worship a pantheon of gods, including the god Molech, sacrificing virginal victims by tossing them into a pit of fire via the mouth of a gigantic bull. The purpose of such sacrifices? To bring rain. The Sodomites also have a room they call the "holy of holies," a place where they believe the gods hang out (and a reference to Judaism's own "Holy of Holies," where the Ark of the Covenant was kept). They believe anyone who enters the room (except for the high priest) will immediately die—a belief challenged when both Zed and Oh spend time in the chamber without ill effects. Also worth noting here: Sodom doesn't get destroyed by God, as in the biblical account, though Abraham does show up with a small army to fight and collect foreskins.
Elsewhere, a tribal shaman refers to an Iroquois creation myth, in which the world is perched on the back of a giant turtle. A character wonders why we should assume that God is a man. Zed believes he was chosen by God for special things. Oh challenges this belief, expressing his doubts about whether God exists at all. Later, however, Oh prays to an unnamed god, asking that the girl he likes would fall in love with him. In the end, Zed—whom the Sodomites are prepared to worship as "the chosen one"—tells the populace that they should all consider themselves chosen. Rain immediately begins to fall—perhaps a sign of blessing as Zed apparently renounces the tempting notion that he is, in fact, a messiah.
While Year One steers clear of nudity, the film is as raunchy and debauched a PG-13 movie as I've ever seen. Cain tells Zed and Oh that the best thing about Sodom is "the sodomy." When the buddies first arrive, they're nearly abused thusly by a guard with a large studded stick. Sodom's high priest is apparently a homosexual (in priestly drag), and he takes a shine to Oh at a palace orgy. Oh rubs oil on the man's chest while the priest talks dirty. Dialogue later on hints that Oh experienced much more at the hands of the high priest.
We hear scads of references to sodomy, homosexuality and bestiality. Circumcision, foreskin and penis jokes are constant. Two characters lose their virginity (off camera). Others writhe suggestively in revealing togas during an orgy and indulge in sexualized pantomime involving bananas, spears and pieces of meat. Conversations are dotted with references to anatomical parts, sexual acts and states of arousal.
A princess is said to have a venereal disease. Oh suggests that Zed masturbates. Zed intimates that he had sex with his mother (joking about how what seemed like a good idea was really awkward the morning after). A eunuch carries his testicles in a pouch around his neck, and he eventually hurls them at Zed and Oh. One woman gets poked in the breast. Oh accidentally breaks an exaggerated stone phallus off an idol.
And that's just the short summary.
Year One was indeed a violent year. As Isaac tells Zed and Oh, "We're at war with someone every other day!" Audiences see folks punched, kicked, grabbed, pinched, speared, flipped, whipped, bashed with rocks, partially stoned, smacked with sticks, crushed by scaffolding, thrown off tower walls and tossed into fiery pits. One soldier loses his head in battle, and we watch it bounce and roll through the dirt.
And it's all supposed to be funny. Cain's murder of Abel is played as dark comedy. Even scenes in which people are mercilessly whipped are played for laughs.
When Abraham drops his sacrificial knife, it stabs his foot. We hear that one character's parents were torn apart by wild dogs and that Zed got into the orphan's good graces by making fun of the whole incident. After all, what could be funnier than reliving the dismemberment of your family?
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and about 10 s-words. We hear quite a few other vulgarities as well, including "d--n," "h---" and the British profanity "bloody."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Zed smokes a pipe. A few women drink something—drugged wine, perhaps?—from a goblet so they "won't feel a thing" when they're thrown into the pit of fire. We hear references to hemp, and Isaac says that he "drinks wine and smokes herb" when he visits Sodom. Orgy attendees imbibe as well.
Other Negative Elements
Zed sniffs, licks and nibbles bear feces. While hanging upside down, Oh urinates on his own face. He also spends a "sleepover" of sorts in a bed with young Seth, who's deeply infatuated with his own flatulence. Zed and Oh are betrayed regularly by people they run into (including biblical good-guy Isaac), and the pair vomits while riding a cart. Priests try to divine the future by reading goopy animal innards.
Year One is a spiritual muddle. On one hand, it mostly focuses on stripping religious stories of their subtle, powerful subtext while mining them for cheap, deeply profane laughs. It belittles belief and mocks religious tradition, taking shots at both the biblical narrative and the practices of pagans, arguably suggesting that there's little difference between the two.
And yet, the movie isn't really an exercise in atheism, either. Year One's god—whoever that deity may be, and the movie never really tells us for sure—marks Cain for his murder, sends down much-needed rain and, indirectly, answers prayer and validates some characters' faith.
Of these conflicting spiritual themes, director Harold Ramis told CNN, "I wanted to do a film that kind of addressed these fundamental beliefs and urged people to take personal responsibility, no matter what they believe God is or isn't. It's still up to us in the final analysis."
Personal responsibility is a good thing—something the Bible itself teaches. But ironically, the folks behind Year One show little responsibility themselves in their storytelling. They've ignored the spiritual depth behind the stories they lampooned, instead using the pages of Genesis to make paper boats—flimsy, temporary things to be used, discarded or crushed at leisure.
These stories haven't been with us for thousands of years by accident. And even many people who don't consider themselves believers would nonetheless acknowledge that biblical narratives have influenced art, law, literature, culture and history in profound ways. These stories have earned the right to be respected.
But really, delving that deeply into the film's philosophical underpinnings—or lack thereof—gives it way too much credit. Year One is not just profane. It's a gross, tawdry mess that elicited more "ewwws" than "ha-ha's" from the audience. In fact, it was so unpleasant and unfunny to sit through that, after it was over, the woman beside me turned and said, "This was the stupidest movie I've ever seen in my whole life."
Ditto, lady. Ditto.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jack Black as Zed; Michael Cera as Oh; Oliver Platt as High Priest; David Cross as Cain; Olivia Wilde as Princess Inanna; Juno Temple as Eema; June Diane Raphael as Maya
June 19, 2009
October 6, 2009